Kevin Jeffrey Clash (born September 17, 1960) is an American puppeteer and voice actor whose characters included Elmo, Clifford, and Hoots the Owl. Clash developed an interest in puppetry at an early age, and began performing for local TV children's shows in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland by the time he was a teenager. In the early 1980s, he began working in Captain Kangaroo, and began performing in Sesame Street in 1984. He was the third puppeteer to perform Elmo, the character he became the most famous for, and became an executive producer and director for the show. Clash worked in various productions for the Muppets and Jim Henson Productions and in other projects. He resigned from Sesame Street in late 2012, after allegations of improper sexual conduct with minors, which Clash denied, stating that any relationships that occurred were between consenting adults.
In 2006, Clash wrote an autobiography called My Life as a Furry Red Monster. He was featured in the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey in 2011.
Kevin Clash was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 17, 1960, the third of four children born to George Clash, a flash welder and handyman, and Gladys Clash, who ran a small daycare center in their two-bedroom, one-bath home in the Baltimore suburb Turner Station. Clash developed an interest in puppetry at an early age, inspired by children's shows like Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Sesame Street. He made his first puppet, a version ofMickey Mouse, at the age of 10. When he was twelve, he created a monkey puppet out of the lining of his father's coat. His first performances were for his mother's daycare children.
By the time he was a teenager, he had built almost 90 puppets, which he based upon commercials, popular music, and his friends. While still in high school, Clash performed at venues throughout Baltimore, including schools, churches, fundraisers, and community events. While appearing at a neighborhood festival, Clash was discovered by Baltimore television personality Stu Kerr, who became Clash's first mentor and hired him to perform in the children's show Caboose at Channel 2. Clash also built puppets for the Romper Room franchise. When he was 17, he contacted and met puppeteer Kermit Love, who became Clash's mentor, after seeing Love featured in an episode of the documentary Call It Macaroni. In 1979, on Love's recommendation, Clash appeared as Cookie Monster in the Sesame Street float during the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and met Jim Henson, who later became his boss, mentor, and friend.
When he was nineteen, Clash became a puppeteer for Captain Kangaroo, initially as a guest performer, in which he also made occasional on-camera appearances. The producers of Captain Kangaroo used some of Clash's puppet creations for the show. In 1984, Clash had to turn down Henson's offer to work on his film The Dark Crystal because he was working on two TV shows at the same time, Captain Kangaroo and Love's syndicated program The Great Space Coaster, in which he was producer for the first time.
In 1984, Captain Kangaroo was cancelled after 29 seasons, and Great Space Coaster ended, freeing up Clash to work on projects with Henson such as the film Labyrinth and Sesame Street.Clash started working at Sesame Street for ten episodes in 1983, mostly performing nondescript, stand-in puppets known as Anything Muppets. Some of his earliest characters included the saxophone-playing Hoots the Owl (based on Louis Armstrong), the infant Baby Natasha, and inventor Dr. Nobel Price. After 1985, Elmo, a furry red monster, became his main character.Three puppeteers, including Richard Hunt, had performed Elmo puppet previously, but it was Clash's development, with a falsetto voice, that established the character. He based Elmo's character on the preschool children that attended his mother's daycare in Baltimore and upon his own personality and the personality of his parents. Clash followed the advice of fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, who told Clash to always "find one special hook" for each character. Clash decided that the central characteristic for Elmo should be that he "should represent love".[note 1]
After the height of Elmo's popularity, especially the "Tickle Me Elmo" craze in 1996, Clash's responsibilities at Sesame Street increased. He recruited, auditioned, and trained its puppeteers,and became the senior Muppet coordinator, a writer, director, and co-producer of the "Elmo's World" segment of the show. Clash worked and mentored the puppeteers of Sesame Street'sinternational co-productions. He found working with the co-productions "a lot of fun" and "very rewarding". He worked on the 1985 feature film Follow That Bird. In 2007, he was promoted to senior creative adviser for the Sesame Workshop. Until 2011, he was the sole performer as Elmo in all his public relations appearances, making his schedule, as he called it, "crazy".Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation, called him "essential" to the show.
In 1990, Clash worked on the film version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He performed in several productions with Jim Henson Productions, including as the Muppet Clifford in The Jim Henson Hour (1989),[note 2] and as Frank Oz's characters (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Sam the Eagle, and Animal) in Muppet Treasure Island (1996). Clash performed in the films Muppets from Space (1999) and The Muppets' Wizard of Oz (2004), and the short-lived TV series Muppets Tonight (1996—1998), in which he reprised Clifford, the show's host. He performed characters and worked behind the scenes on the live-action TV series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Disney sitcom Dinosaurs. In 1999, Clash worked on the first film that featured Elmo, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.
In 2006, Clash published his autobiography, co-written by Gary Brozek and Louis Henry Mitchell, entitled My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud. His life was featured in the 2011 documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey.
Resignation from Sesame Workshop
In November 2012, 23-year-old Sheldon Stephens alleged that he had been in a sexual relationship with Clash which began when Stephens was 16. Sesame Workshop had initially been presented with the allegation in June, and its investigation found the allegation to be unsubstantiated. Clash acknowledged that he had been in a relationship with the accuser; however, he characterized the relationship as being between consenting adults. Stephens later recanted his accusation, but two weeks later, Cecil Singleton and two additional unnamed men made similar accusations and lawsuits were filed against Clash.
Clash resigned from Sesame Workshop on November 20, 2012, and released a statement saying, "Personal matters have diverted attention away from the important work 'Sesame Street' is doing and I cannot allow it to go on any longer. I am deeply sorry to be leaving and am looking forward to resolving these personal matters privately." Sesame Workshop also released a statement: "Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin's personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from 'Sesame Street.'" They stated that other puppeteers had been trained to serve as Clash's understudy and would take over his roles on the show.
In November 2012, Clash came out publicly as gay in response to the allegations that led to his resignation from the Sesame Workshop, stating, "I am a gay man. I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter."
Clash is an African-American and has stated that although children ignore him and speak directly to Elmo, African-American adults tend to be surprised when they meet him. He has stated in interviews that his racial identity was pertinent to his work, and that it came through in his performances.
Awards and honors
- Clash won Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series for his work as Elmo on Sesame Street in 1990 and 2005. In all, he has won 23 daytime Emmys and one prime-time Emmy.
- He was the first recipient of the 'Miss Jean' Worthley Award for Service to Families and Children given by Maryland Public Television on June 9, 2007.
- On May 19, 2012, Clash was presented with an honorary degree from Washington & Jefferson College.